Give it back!” I yelled uselessly. Pathetically. Sure, I had my hands on the getaway driver through the open car window, but there was little I could do. Later, I thought of a million different things I wanted to do. He looked at me, smiled a big toothy smile, and stepped on the gas. I briefly gave chase on foot, shouting out the number of the license plate—stolen, as it turned out—of the white Ford sedan as one barista scrawled the digits on her arm with a black marker and another dialed 911.

Not 30 seconds earlier, I had been sitting in Starbucks, e-mailing a former California state senator to request an interview for a column I was writing about school choice. At first, I thought somebody had tripped and fallen on my table. Then I realized my laptop was no longer beneath my fingertips. I tore after the thief, who was already halfway to the door with the shiny aluminum MacBook Pro I’d purchased less than three weeks earlier. The kid—maybe 19 years old, black, neck tattoo—hit the front door so hard he cracked the glass. And there I was, 41 years old, trying to chase him down.

I found out later that I was the four-man crew’s third victim that afternoon. Less than ten minutes earlier, they had hit another Starbucks and a Panera Bread one exit up the freeway. About a week later, an investigator from the Fontana Police Department called. He had four people in custody for “an unrelated crime,” but he had evidence suggesting that they might have been involved in my theft; would I mind taking a look at some photos? These young men—one a juvenile, the others 19 or 20—were eventually implicated in a string of “Apple pickings,” as they’ve come to be known, at more than two dozen locations across three Southern California counties.

It isn’t easy looking at a photo lineup. But one mug shot was unmistakable. I paused for a long moment, and I must have had a strange look because the officer asked if I recognized someone. “Yes,” I said. “That’s the driver.” Of all the forlorn faces staring up at me, his was the only one smiling.

“He was probably smiling because he knew he got one over on you with your computer,” the officer said.

“I guess so. But why would he be smiling now, when he’s under arrest?”

Because, I figured later, my smiling thief probably got one over on California’s criminal-justice system, too. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ordered 37,000 felons released from California’s state prisons to remedy what Justice Anthony Kennedy called “serious constitutional violations.” The state legislature responded with the Public Safety Realignment Act, which overhauled the state’s felony sentencing and parole rules for “non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders.” The new rules treat property crimes less seriously than violent offenses. And technically, what had happened to me was “grand theft from a person,” rather than robbery, because the thief hadn’t ripped the computer from my hands.

When the state decides that a serious offense is no longer so serious, you can guess what happens next. According to the state attorney general’s office, property crimes rose 4.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, just as the sentencing changes went into effect in October. It was the first increase in those crimes since 2004 and a sharp reversal from the 2.4 percent decline over the nine previous months. Coincidence? Possibly. Or it could be that changing the rules made property crimes more attractive for criminals—that the rewards now outweighed the risks. We’ll have a much clearer picture later this year, when the attorney general releases the 2012 crime stats.

Replacing my laptop was expensive but easy enough. I bought a laptop lock this time, though I haven’t used it, because I’ve never returned to the coffee shop. And two months later, I still haven’t come to grips with the brazenness of the crime. Though no physical harm came to me, not a day passes that I don’t see that smiling thief in my mind’s eye.


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